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Archive for June, 2006


Alaska ports of call

Posted by Anita Dunham-Potter On June - 26 - 2006

Almost one million people cruise Alaska’s southeast coast every year. The season runs from the second week of May to the third week of September. Cruises through the Inside Passage are generally round trips from Vancouver or Seattle; on these you’ll see little of the interior. Gulf of Alaska cruises travel one way between Seward or Whittier (the cruise ports for Anchorage) and Vancouver or Seattle; these also include the Inside Passage. The majority of cruises take visitors to the historic port towns of Sitka, Juneau, Skagway and Ketchikan.

Here’s what you’ll experience in these ports of call.

Sitka

Sitka was established by Russian colonists and many remnants of that period remain. The most prominent relic is the onion-domed St. Michael’s Russian Orthodox Cathedral, which dominates the town’s skyline. Learn more about the town’s Russian past with a visit to the Russian Bishop’s House, which is operated by the National Park Service; it offers excellent displays and insight into that era.

Just a short walk from town is the Sitka National Historic Park, a beautiful wooded area that was the site of the final battle between the native Tlingits and the Russians. The visitor’s center offers many exhibits and multimedia presentations. The highlight of the park is its many colorful totem poles, one of the best collections in the state. The Inside Passage is noted for its rainforests, and this park has one of the best. A walk along the paths through the dense and enormous foliage is humbling, yet the fresh air is almost intoxicating. It’s a strange feeling.

Across the street from the park is the Alaska Raptor Center, the best place to get up-close and personal with the great Bald Eagle. This all-volunteer center has become a national leader in raptor rehabilitation and public education. Each year the center treats between 100 and 200 injured eagles, owls, hawks and falcons. Many birds are rehabilitated and released; others, whose injuries are too severe to allow them to survive in the wild, remain at the center or are sent off to zoos or other aviaries around the country. Don’t miss “Sitka,” the center’s “educational bald eagle.” Sitka was injured when she was hit by a car, causing a severe injury to her right foot that required partial amputation. Her sprit wasn’t broken, however; in fact, she has a lot of personality. Rock your head side to side and she’ll mimic you.

Juneau

Juneau was founded in 1880 following the discovery of gold. Its steep hills, which cling to the sides of Mount Juneau and Mount Roberts, gave it the nickname “Little San Francisco.” Though it is Alaska’s capital, the only way you can reach Juneau is by plane or ship; there are no roads into or out of town.

For a landlocked town it sure is busy, and most of the activity comes from cruise ship passengers. Sadly, the new “gold rush” for many who visit here is a mad dash to shop in one of the overly numerous souvenir shops that now occupy many of the city’s historic wooden buildings, to visit one of the old-time saloons, or to pan for gold in defunct mine tailings. Savvy visitors make it past these places to look for the real soul of Juneau, which offers wildlife, glaciers, flight-seeing, hiking, biking and paddling.

To get the lay of the land, take the Mount Roberts Tramway, which will whisk you from sea level to 1,800 feet in less than five minutes. From the top, the view over the city and out across Lynn Canal and Gastineau Channel is spectacular. Thirteen miles outside the city lies another must- see: Mendenhall Glacier, touted as the world’s only “drive-up” glacier.

For a real adventure, take a float plane tour to Taku Lodge; from the air you’ll see the shimmering expanses of the Juneau Ice Field. Other great options include whale watching and tours of Tracy Arm Fjord, which is home to the Sawyer Glaciers. During a Tracy Arm excursion, I saw many bears eating fish along the shore, mountain goats with their newborn kids teetering along the cliffs, and eagles flying around the icebergs. The highlight is seeing and hearing huge chunks of glacier crashing into the sea. You’ll be amazed at how blue the ice looks.

Skagway

The characters from the HBO series “Deadwood” would feel right at home in Skagway. Wooden walkways and original timber houses make the town a living museum of Klondike Gold Rush days. Its bordellos and saloons once hosted such colorful customers as Guzzling Gertie, Gum Boots Kitty and gang boss Soapy Smith, the town’s worst villain. The spot where Smith died in a gun duel is routinely pointed out during tours of the town. Today, Skagway’s year-round population is about 750 and there are only a few saloons; interestingly, the town employs six policemen.

Most visitors to Skagway opt to take one of the world’s greatest train rides, aboard the historic White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad, which began service in 1900. The railroad parallels the old trail that the miners trekked to the goldfields. The trail is so dangerous that hikers are forbidden to use it; one portion, called “Dead Horse Gulch,” marks the final resting place of some 3,000 pack animals. Leaving Skagway at the four-mile point, the railroad begins its steep climb at 260 feet per minute from sea level to 2,865 feet. From the train, which still uses many of the original carriages, you’ll see scenery that’s vast and absolutely wild.

Ketchikan

Salmon and hookers together — who knew? In the 1920s Ketchikan was known as “one of the wickedest dens of the Pacific.” The colorful wooden cottages and alleys of Creek Street were once home to the town’s famous red-light district. Today, most of the buildings house restaurants, souvenir shops and art galleries. For a brush with the past, stop by Dolly’s House, where the sign says, “If you can’t find your husband, he’s in here.” Pretend madams in full regalia will give you a legal tour of this well-preserved home.

Ketchikan has the largest collection of Tlingit totem poles in the world, and they can be seen at three sites: Totem Bight State Park, which re-creates the setting of a traditional native village; Saxman Village, an active Tlingit community; and the Totem Heritage Center, home to the oldest totem poles in Alaska, some dating back more than 150 years. Across the creek from the Heritage Center is Deer Mountain Hatchery and Eagle Center, where thousands of salmon and trout are raised each year. In the summer months, the hatchery’s holding tanks are full of fish in various stages of development. Also on display are two injured female bald eagles who like to show off their eight-foot wing spans when visitors stop by their enclosure.

A flight-seeing excursion or boat trip to Misty Fjords National Monument is the big thing to do in Ketchikan. Encompassing an area of more than two million acres, this protected wilderness area has waterfalls, pristine lakes, snowcapped mountains, and granite cliffs that drop thousands of feet into the sea. It’s a don’t-miss.

If you’re up for something completely different, try getting in touch with your inner Tarzan. Alaska Canopy Adventures allows you to zip across Ketchikan’s rainforest 135 feet above the ground. There are seven zip-lines and 4,500 feet of cable strung across spruce, hemlock and cedar trees; distances between platforms range from 175 feet to 850 feet. There are also three rope bridges to navigate. Those fearless enough to look down might catch sight of a bear; glance upward and you might get a bird’s-eye view of a bald eagle.

Breathtaking scenery, gleaming glaciers, abundant wildlife and interesting native culture — you’ll never have a better chance to experience adventure and true wilderness than in Alaska.

Filled Under Destinations

Cruising Alaska in style

Posted by Anita Dunham-Potter On June - 19 - 2006

The Regent Seven Seas Mariner gracefully tiptoes into Yakutat Bay for an up-close encounter with Hubbard Glacier. Captain Guillou is determined to get as close as he safely can. It is a perfect day: The sun is shining, the water is dotted with ice floes, and two curious seals follow the ship into the bay.

You can sense the excitement in lecturer Terry Breen’s voice as we are able to get within half a mile of the glacier; two days earlier, the ship could get within only two miles. The ship is enfolded in silence, every passenger awed. Suddenly a thunderclap erupts in the stillness as a piece of the glacier “calves” into the sea. The sound echoes around us, the water trembling with giant ripples of waves. No wonder the native Tlingit people call the noise “white thunder.”

Alaska’s Inside Passage is an awe-inspiring spectacle of nature, with glaciers, snow-capped mountains, soaring eagles, humpback whales, gold rush towns, Russian intrigue and Native American legends. You see it all from the comfort of the Mariner.

Mid-size luxury

Formerly known as the Radisson Seven Seas Mariner, the luxury mid-size ship is now called Regent Seven Seas Mariner. At 48,000 tons and carrying 700 passengers and 445 crew members, the all-suite, all-balcony Mariner is the perfect ship for seeing Alaska in luxurious style. Its smaller size is an advantage, affording up-close encounters with glaciers and no lines for any activities. The inclusive fare includes gratuities and wine with dinner (starting in 2007, all shipboard alcoholic drinks will be included in the fare), so you are free to relax and enjoy being pampered without worrying about how the cost will add up.

Mariner is the essence of sophisticated elegance. You won’t find glitz and glamour, but rather a refined atmosphere of rich woods and tasteful décor that is more soothing than opulent. The six-story open atrium with its glass elevators is about as ostentatious as it gets on board; overall, the ship feels more like a stately home than an oceangoing vessel.

You’ll find many places to relax on the ship, including the popular library and Internet area which has comfy chairs, abundant games and puzzles, and a well-loved cappuccino/espresso/coffee machine (nicknamed “Starbucks” by the crew). The pool area is a good place to loaf in the sun, and the teak loungers are cushy. The Observation Lounge on Deck 12, which has floor-to-ceiling windows, is a great place to curl up — perhaps to read a book, watch the changing scenery or enjoy a cocktail.

With the new Regent name, the cruise line is upgrading many onboard amenities and adding enhancements throughout the fleet, including an upgrade to the furnishings in all staterooms and public areas. The redesigned staterooms will get new bedding, down duvets, high thread-count Anichini linens, cashmere throws, flat screen TVs and DVD players. In upper category suites, guests will be able to play iPods on stereo speakers. High-speed wireless Internet access and cell phone service will also be available on all ships. On Mariner, WiFi is currently available only in the library area, but other areas of the ship will be wired as “hot spots” in the coming months.

Suite life

The new upgrades to the cabins are just icing on the cake. In fact, the suite life aboard Mariner (and aboard her sister ship, Voyager) has always been great. The all-balcony configuration gives everyone a view, and the cabins are so comfortable and spacious that it is tempting to spend the whole day there. In my opinion, they are the best staterooms on any ship sailing today.

Mariner has 350 suite accommodations that range from a “Vista” suite, measuring 301 square feet, to the multi-room “Grand Suites,” which measure 1,486 to 2,000 square feet, including balconies. Butler service comes with the 90 largest suites.

My 449-square-foot “Penthouse Suite” on Deck 11 was wonderfully laid out and afforded plenty of space for me and my two children. Deluxe amenities included a generous walk-in closet area with drawers and tons of hangers, a huge wraparound sofa containing the cabin’s third berth, two lounging chairs, a large desk area with iPod docking speakers, a bar area with a refrigerator, a well-lighted vanity area, plush teak deck chairs, and a bathroom twice the size you’ll find on most ships. The deep soaking tub with massage showerhead was a great addition, though passengers over 6 feet tall might have trouble showering as the ceiling doesn’t reach very high. A bar setup with your choice of alcoholic beverage is part of the cruise fare. The only thing missing was a clock — an indication that life on a Regent ship is about getting away from it all.

The best part of our suite was our butler Nor. He anticipated all our needs and went above and beyond with added touches for the kids (every afternoon he would bring their most favorite thing: chocolate-covered strawberries). Our stewardess, Donna, attended to the suite twice a day and restocked our bar with our choice of beverages. Turn-down service always included chocolates on the pillows.

Between the service and the amenities, I found myself spending a lot of time in my cabin haven. What with the view and the ability to snuggle up in the plush deck chairs, why would I want to leave?

Dining

The dining options are quite surprising aboard the Mariner. There are four restaurants and a pool grill to try, or you can dine in-suite with lunch and dinner served course by course from the main restaurant menu. The Compass Rose restaurant on Deck 5 is the main dining room for breakfast, lunch and dinner. All meals are open seating, so you can dine when you like and either alone or with others. La Veranda restaurant on Deck 11, which has a breakfast and lunch buffet, takes on a trattoria-style atmosphere at night, offering a menu of cuisines from different regions. This was our favorite place to dine, especially during the “Mediterranean Bistro” evenings; the antipasto and entrees are excellent. The Poolside Grille offers a casual lunch menu in the afternoon, and a traditional high tea is served at 4 p.m. in the Observation Lounge.

Two restaurants require reservations: Latitudes, which serves Indochinese dishes family-style, and the intimate French restaurant, Signatures, the only restaurant at sea operated by chefs from Le Cordon Bleu. I found both to be outstanding.

Service is warm and friendly in all the restaurants, and there is a willingness to meet special requests. Even my kids’ craving for chocolate milk was accommodated by the staff, who returned with gourmet chocolate milkshakes custom-blended by the bartender.

Entertainment

The daily activities and entertainment offerings — from fitness classes to enrichment lectures — make the days at sea pass all too quickly. Terry Breen, Regent’s resident Alaska specialist, gives the best port lectures I’ve ever experienced on any ship.

I’m a bit jaded when it comes to shipboard entertainment productions, yet I was pleasantly surprised by the quality and variety of the evening shows in the Constellation Theater. After the show, the evening’s entertainment continued with musicians performing in the Observation Lounge. The Stars Nightclub disco operates into the wee hours. Another popular spot is the Connoisseur Club, where guests can settle into a comfortable English club chair and light up a stogie from the club’s humidor.

The casino is a small gaming room with blackjack and slots on the side. Shops, which are also small, carry some lovely high-end jewelry; a general store offers local souvenirs, jewelry, clothing and a few logo items. There are art auctions and a photo gallery, where guests can buy photos of themselves on the cruise. (One thing I didn’t like about this cruise it was the photographer shooting guests at dinner. I found it too “Vegas-like” — and out of character for Regent’s sophisticated ambiance.)

Pampering comes in the ship’s Parisian Carita spa, where both the Asian and European treatments book up early. I indulged in two massages during my trip and they were excellent. Across from the spa is a well-equipped gym that was always in use.

When in port, Regent offers many shore excursions, everything from flight-seeing to walks around the town walks. The best shore excursion was the Tracy Arm Fjord Cruise to the Sawyer Glaciers. Book early because this one sells out fast.

Regent families

Traditionally a line catering to an affluent older clientele, Regent has made efforts in recent years to appeal to families and cruisers of all ages; grandparents are particularly encouraged to bring their grandchildren. On my cruise there were more than 40 children, and most were traveling in large family groups. One family I talked to had four generations traveling together; it was truly wonderful to witness.

For kids 3 to 17, Regent offers supervised activities at certain times of the year, mostly on Alaska, Tahiti and holiday sailings. I wasn’t sure if my veteran kid cruisers (ages 11 and 9) would like a shipboard program that offered no designated children’s area. I needn’t have worried. In fact, the kids told me they’d never had as much fun with other kids as they did on this cruise.

Instead of offering the usual mindless kid cruise activities (computers and videos), the excellent counselors had the kids playing a lot of skill games along with team activities that allowed them to get to know each other better. There were also educational talks for the kids to learn more about Alaska. By the end of the cruise, addresses and e-mail information were being exchanged between newfound friends. I was truly impressed with the program.

Regent reflections

As I sat in the comfy confines of a plush wicker chair sipping a cappuccino from the “Starbucks,” I watched my kids playing a lively game of checkers. It’s the simple pleasures on board the Mariner that truly define this cruise. Sadly, this is something you won’t experience on many of today’s large cruise ships. Reflecting on my experience aboard the Seven Seas Mariner, I realized this was the most relaxing and carefree cruise I had enjoyed in years.

If you go

Regent Seven Seas Cruises is a luxury cruise line, and the average cruiser’s income is well into six figures. That being said, it can be an affordable option for those premium cruise line cruisers who are thinking about “trading up” to a luxury cruise line. Fares for the lowest stateroom category on Alaska sailings (remember, all the suites have balconies) start at $3,497 per person. Look for promotions that offer free airfare or special kids-sail-free deals.

Filled Under Reviews

Book your extras before you sail

Posted by Anita Dunham-Potter On June - 12 - 2006

Before I left home to travel on my recent Alaska cruise, I booked my shore excursions, ordered my in-cabin bar setup, booked my dining reservations and let the cruise line know my preferences for fruit, snacks, daily paper, pillow and duvet. Finally, many cruise lines have updated their Web sites to allow passengers to book many amenities and special requests in advance of departure.

The Internet has become an indispensable tool for vacation research and planning. Most cruise Web sites have long allowed passengers to research ships and itineraries, book a cruise, and fill out customs and immigration forms online. But only recently have some of them stepped up to meet passengers’ desire to book shore excursions, spa appointments, restaurant seatings and other cruise experiences before they even get on the ship. Convenience and customization – it’s a great recipe for shipboard satisfaction, and I think we’ll see more of it as time goes on.

Following is a list of cruise lines that offer advance bookings online.

Carnival Cruise Lines. Guests can book shore excursions as early as 180 days before sailing and as late as five days before sailing. They can also order “bon voyage” courtesy gifts like flowers, chocolates and wine. Carnival is looking into more options like booking supper club reservations and spa treatments; however, no decision has been made at this time.

Celebrity Cruises. Passengers on Celebrity can book shore excursions on the Web site up to 10 days before sailing. They can also set their communication preferences, purchase onboard enhancements and make arrangements for special occasions.

Costa Cruise Lines. Costa Cruise customers can book shore excursions and order special services like spa treatments and dinner reservations. They can also order such bon voyage gifts as Italian gourmet chocolates.

Cruise West. Guests on Cruise West can make advance bookings for shore excursions and fill out a form noting their special physical and dietary needs. They can also purchase logo wear and other items in the cruise line’s gear store.

Crystal Cruises. Crystal Cruises has more advance booking options than any other cruise Web site; options include shore excursions, spa services and Creative Learning Institute classes. Reservations can be made anywhere from 180 days to seven days before departure.

Disney Cruise Line. Guests can use their “mouse” to book shore excursions and such onboard services as spa treatments and baby-sitting.

Holland America Line. Passengers with reservations can book shore excursions and bon voyage gifts that include everything from wine to flowers.

Norwegian Cruise Line. Guests already booked with NCL can make advance bookings for some tours, and can reserve bon voyage gifts such as wine, logo wear, chocolates and flowers. In late fall, NCL will launch a new Web site that will offer many enhancements, including more advance booking options.

Oceania Cruises. Both individual shore excursions and extensive pre-cruise tour packages can be purchased in advance through Oceania’s Web site.

Orient Lines. Passengers can place online orders for bon voyage gifts, including a selection of wines, champagne, flowers and gift certificates for onboard purchases.

Princess Cruises. Princess Cruises’ “Personalizer” function allows passengers to reserve shore excursions and spa treatments. The site also allows customers to order a variety of special gifts, either for one’s own cabin (a liquor package, for example) or as a bon voyage surprise for someone who’s sailing.

Regent Seven Seas Cruises. RSSC offers guests with deposited reservations some innovative online capabilities, including the opportunity to reserve a table at one of the line’s popular alternative restaurants (where reservations are required) up to 60 days before departure. Guests can also book shore excursions and request a personalized bar setup and snack items; they can also specify their bedding preferences. RSSC also plans to offer advance bookings for its shipboard Parisian Carita Spas in the near future.

Royal Caribbean International. Royal Caribbean allows guests to book shore excursions online, as well as pre- and post-cruise tours. Guests may also order such bon voyage gifts as logo wear, wine and chocolates online.

Silversea Cruises. Guests booked on Silversea can take advantage of a new feature called “My Voyage” on the cruise line’s Web site to schedule appointments for spa and beauty treatments and to book shore excursions as early as 60 days before sailing. Guests can also register for early embarkation online.

Spur-of-the-moment planning doesn’t always work on a cruise ship. Shore excursions often fill up quickly, and services like spa appointments can be overbooked in the blink of an eye. Savvy cruisers surf the Web long before they sail. Advance bookings are convenient, and they make for a personalized vacation. Best of all, they save you from rushing around the ship trying to nail down reservations in the first hours of your cruise. Instead, you can actually sit back and enjoy your cruise from the minute you step on board.

Filled Under Advice

An American ship cruises Hawaii

Posted by Anita Dunham-Potter On June - 5 - 2006

NCL America’s newest cruise ship, the Pride of Hawaii, launches on June 5 with a seven-day cruise of the Hawaiian Islands. It cost more than half a billion dollars to build, and every penny is worth it. It has 10 restaurants, 12 bars, theatrical shows, an “undersea” nightclub, a cigar room, a kids’ room, a spa and two gigantic Garden Villa penthouses. And everywhere you go, the spirit is “Aloha.”

Here is a ship that will fulfill all your champagne wishes and caviar dreams — Hawaiian style.

Cruise American

At 93,500 tons, and carrying 2,400 passengers and 1,000 crew members, the Pride of Hawaii is the largest U.S.-flagged cruise ship ever built. On June 5, it will join its sister ships, the Pride of America and the Pride of Aloha, offering seven-day cruises of the Hawaiian Islands, year-round, from their home port of Honolulu. This is a remarkable comeback for American large-ship cruising. It was just two years ago that Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL) launched its NCL America brand, offering the first U.S.-flagged ship to cruise the Hawaiian Islands in 50 years.

“With the addition of Pride of Hawaii, we are thrilled to complete our ambitious plan of bringing three U.S.-flagged ships to Hawaii,” said Colin Veitch, NCL’s president and CEO on the inaugural cruise. Veitch said NCL America’s three vessels would bring about half a million passengers to Hawaii each year, help create more than 20,000 American jobs and generate more than $800 million in spending on ship support and shore excursions in the islands. NCL America’s commitment to the Hawaiian Islands has proven to be a welcome boost for Hawaiian tourism, which was badly shaken by the events of September 11, 2001.

Spirit of aloha

Step aboard the Pride of Hawaii and you are enveloped in a kaleidoscope of tropical colors and traditional culture. Everywhere you go, crew members in festive attire greet you with “Aloha” –though it’s often delivered in a Southern or New England accent. This is something new to me. In recent years, cruising has become synonymous with “international service,” and I am accustomed to hearing foreign accents from the crew. On the Pride of Hawaii, every word reminds me that I am on an American ship.

The heart of the ship is the Aloha Atrium, whose ceiling is aglow with colorful lighted glass flowers. The ship’s lobby is located here, as are several of the ship’s specialty restaurants. There’s also a huge TV screen, which shows nonstop videos of the Hawaiian Islands or of shipboard festivities. You can grab a cup of coffee at the Java Café, sit back in a comfy chair and people-watch or you can listen to one of the live bands that play throughout the cruise.

During the day, the most popular place on board is the Waikiki Beach Pool area, which has two pools, four whirlpools with colorful awnings and a bright-yellow water slide for kids. I liked the many options for sun and shade, and the ship’s rattan loungers are terrific — the best I’ve seen on any big ship.

The Pride of Hawaii is a great ship, but it is not the main attraction. The main attraction is the destinations. Indeed, on its seven-day itinerary of the islands, the ship will spend almost 100 hours in port, with overnight stays in Maui and Kauai. The cruise goal is clear: It’s all about seeing the Hawaiian Islands in comfort and style.

Staterooms

The ship offers a tremendous variety of cabin quarters, from standard inside staterooms and balcony suites to interconnecting cabins and luxurious villas with butler and concierge service.

With its vibrant Hawaiian hues, my 340-square-foot balcony mini-suite was cheerful and welcoming. Most suites have a queen-size bed, a separate living area with a dining table, and concierge service. A standard ocean-view stateroom with a balcony encompasses about 200 square feet; regular ocean-view rooms and inside cabins range between 150 and 160 square feet. All cabins have glossy cherry wood walls and furniture, a television, a refrigerator, a safe, a duvet and a well-designed bathroom with separate toilet and shower/tub areas.

Families or groups traveling together can choose from some 300 interconnecting cabins in a range of categories from standard inside rooms to suites. Different grades of cabins can be also linked to create two to five bedroom areas.

If you’re craving more exclusivity on board, check out the 10 courtyard villas, which come with their own butler and concierge. These villas ring a private, Balinese-style courtyard, which has a retractable roof, rattan sun beds, a plunge pool, a hot tub, a private sun deck, a treadmill and a Stairmaster. Each villa has two bedrooms and a living area and goes for around $5,200 per adult.

Want to be king of the ship? For $26,000 a week, you can stay in one of the two 5,000-square- foot Garden Villa Suites. For that you get three bedrooms, three baths, your own private roof terrace, a private living room with a grand piano, a private garden and your own private hot tub. Think you can’t afford it? According to onboard personnel, several couples will rent one Garden Villa Suite and then divide the cost among them, making it more affordable per couple than a single courtyard villa.

Dining, dining and more dining

With the Pride of Hawaii, NCL continues to refine the “Freestyle Cruising” concept that has become its signature amenity. Passengers enjoy the freedom to dine where, when and with whom they please. “Resort casual” is the norm, and formal night is optional.

With 10 different restaurants to choose from, the dining experiences are varied and laid-back. Passing on the huge dining rooms, I found it a real pleasure to enjoy a glass of wine in Le Bistro one night and a glass of sake with sushi in Jasmine Garden the next.

The culinary options truly set NCL apart from every other cruise line. Dining choices include the ship’s two dining rooms (traditional and contemporary menus), Aloha Nui and Aloha Nui Lanai cafes (informal buffet fare), Papa’s Italian Kitchen, Paniolo Tapas & Salsa Restaurant, and Blue Lagoon (an American-style diner offering comfort food).

For a cover charge of $5 to $20 per person, you can also dine at the following premium venues: Le Bistro (gourmet French cuisine), Jasmine Garden (sushi, teppanyaki and Pacific fusion) and Cagney’s Steakhouse (steak and seafood). Still hungry? There’s an ondeck grill, a coffee shop, an ice cream bar and 24-hour room service.

With the launch of the Pride of Hawaii, NCL America has made some changes to make the dining service run more smoothly. The biggest change is the addition of flat-panel monitors all around the ship that display information on seat availability and wait times for each restaurant. If you have your heart set on eating at Le Bistro and there’s a 30-minute wait, the maitre d’ will give you a pager that works anywhere on the ship. You can also reserve space at any restaurant through the maitre d’.

Entertainment

The three-deck-high Stardust Theater is the place to go for the ship’s spirited theatrical performances, which are always well attended. In addition, there are evening Waikiki Beach Pool parties with changing themes. One night was a Hawaiian-themed “Rock-a-Hula”; the other night was a ’70s “Flower Power Party.”

There is no casino on the ship, so the liveliest place on board is Bar Central, a new concept for NCL that was unveiled on the Norwegian Jewel last year. Bar Central is a hub of three separate but interconnected bars. Hang around long enough and pretty much everyone on the ship will have made a pit stop here.

Upstairs from Bar Central, nightlife can get really funky at the Medusa Lounge. It has a festive undersea motif, which makes you feel like a mermaid. I heard a terrible but hilarious version of “Wind Beneath My Wings” in the karaoke section. If you love karaoke but don’t like public humiliation, you can belt out your own songs in one of the three private karaoke rooms. If you prefer a bar with a view, head for the Spinnaker Lounge on Deck 13.

Younger entertainment can be found at the Keiki Club (for younger kids) and at the surf-themed Wipe Out Teens Club. Passengers can also take advantage of NCL’s new shipwide Wi-Fi capability. While I had no problem with the Wi-Fi on the pool deck, I did have difficulty with it in my cabin. Fortunately, there’s a broadband hookup in the cabin that worked great.

Recreation and relaxation

Body Waves Fitness Center on Deck 12 is open 24 hours a day for those who are so inclined. The facility has all the latest weight machines, cardiovascular equipment and free weights, plus a separate room for fitness classes. Aerobics and stretch classes are free; Pilates, yoga and Spinning classes cost $10 apiece. There is also a jogging track and sports deck with bleacher seating that accommodates basketball, volleyball and tennis. There are also two driving nets for golf, a shuffleboard court and ping-pong tables.

The Ying & Yang Spa, operated by Mandara Spas, is the perfect place to unwind and get pampered. The best part of the spa is the relaxation rooms, which have great sea views, a hydrotherapy pool, tropical-experience showers, a plunge pool, aromatic steam rooms, a sauna and heated chaise lounges.

This crew has sea legs

Service has been a problem for NCL America since it launched its first ship with crews that had little or no shipboard experience. Fortunately, the cruise line has learned from its mistakes and service has improved. The company credits better hiring practices and new training, including a three-week training course at the Seafarers International Union of America training center in Piney Point, Maryland.

“We’ve seen a dramatic improvement over where we were in the beginning,” said Andy Stuart, NCL’s executive vice president for marketing.

I doubt the NCL America service will ever be as refined as the service you get on internationally crewed ships, but the crew on board the Pride of Hawaii is certainly the most enthusiastic crew I’ve ever sailed with. I found a group of young people who are eager to please and quick to make fun conversation.

In the end, this cruise isn’t about the food or the service; it’s about the destination. Active volcanoes, lush rain forests, pristine beaches and cascading waterfalls are the stars of this voyage, and the ship says “Aloha” from the moment you set foot on board.

Filled Under Reviews